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Metropolis: The Complete Metropolis
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Sparks Will Fly"
5 stars

Almost from the time of its original release in 1927, Fritz Lang’s sci-fi epic “Metropolis” has been considered one of the landmark works in the history of cinema and one of the most influential films ever made--traces of its visually flamboyant styles have turned up in so many subsequent genre films that it would almost be easier to list the ones that don’t demonstrate any obvious influence than the ones that do. This is an impressive enough achievement for any movie to attain but in the case of “Metropolis,” its lasting impact is all the more extraordinary because it has been virtually impossible to see it as it was originally intended since the time of its initial German premiere. An enormously expensive and elaborate production, it put its studio, UFA, heavily in debt and while the original version, clocking in at around three hours, was a success in Europe, it didn’t make nearly enough money to pay for itself and the studio eventually went bankrupt. Eventually, the studio was bought out by Paramount Pictures and they decreed that the re-edited version that had been prepared for its American release--a cut that lost nearly an hour of footage from the original--would be the only one in circulation and apparently had the negative of Lang’s original cut destroyed.

Over the years, it would suffer additional cuts and by the time that it reemerged in 1984 in a “restored” version supervised by music producer Giorgio Moroder in a version that featured a new soundtrack featuring music by the likes of Loverboy and Pat Benatar, it was down to about 80 minutes and it seemed as though film fanatics would have to settle for that. Things changed considerably in 2001 when a new version of the film was reassembled using newly rediscovered footage and a combination of title cards and still photos that bumped the running time to just over two hours and provided viewers with a clearer, though still frustratingly incomplete, vision of what Lang originally had in mind. Then in 2008, the seemingly impossible occurred as a couple of film historians in Buenos Aires stumbled upon what turned out to be a 16mm duplicate print of virtually all of Lang’s original version of the film and that rediscovered print has formed the basis for the film’s latest and most significant restoration to date. Granted, there are still a few pieces of the puzzle that are still missing--those moments are papered over with title cards containing information gleaned from the novelization of the film published during its initial release in Germany-- and the new footage is of considerably lower quality than the surrounding material but for anyone even vaguely interested in the history of film, these are flaws that can be easily overlooked because they help to provide us with the clearest look yet at the astonishments that it provided its earliest audiences and also reconfirm its stature as one of the towering landmarks of the cinema in general and the science-fiction genre in particular.

Set in the not-too-distant future (which is probably the not-too-distant past by this point), “Metropolis” is set in a giant cityscape where the populace is neatly divided into the haves and have-nots. The former live high above the city in vast skyscrapers and spend their time living lives of carefree hedonism--nightclubs, garden parties and track meets--without ever giving a thought as to what is going on beyond the gilded walls that they live behind. The latter, on the other hand, are a permanently downtrodden lot who literally live in the bowels of the city and relentlessly toil at the gigantic machines that keep things running up above. One fine day above the city, Freder (Gustav Froehlich), the son of the city’s ruler, John Fredersen (Alfred Abel), is going about his easygoing existence when he accidentally encounters Maria (Brigitte Helm), a worker who has taken it upon herself to lead a pilgrimage of children from down below to the heights of the city so that they can see how their brothers live. Freder falls instantly in love with her and follows her back down to where the workers toil away and has his eyes opened at last to the conditions that they are living and working in. He is so taken with their plight, in fact, that he winds up taking the place of a lowly worker at the helm of one of the backbreaking machines and sending him up to fill in his place of privilege. Later on, he attends a secret workers meeting led by Maria in which she preaches that the workers and the employers need to find a middle ground and that Freder, with his feet in both world, may be just the person to effect that change. (“There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator.”)

Admittedly, this is hardly the most radical sentiment to ever come up in the history of labor-management disputes but it is anathema to Fredersen and he calls upon his trusty evil scientist, Rotwang (Rudolph Klein-Rogge) to create a robot double of Maria that can presumably be utilized to discredit her. After being successfully tested out in a local nightclub where she scandalizes the clientele with her sexy dancing without popping a single rivet, the ersatz Maria is sent down to the workers to do her magic. Unfortunately, what Fredersen doesn’t realize is that Rotwang bears a long-standing grudge against him over a woman named Hel that both of them loved but who wound up with Fredersen. Seeing his chance to finally get revenge on his foe, Rotwang kidnaps the real Maria and sends the robot out to stir up a revolution amongst the workers that inspires them to smash up all the machinery in the ensuing frenzy. Once he discovers what has happened, Freder returns to the now-flooding underground and after reuniting with the real Maria, the two of them race against time to save both the workers’ children and to bring the two halves of the city together at last before all hope is lost.

As for the newly rediscovered footage, it appears throughout the film and it does flesh out some characters who until now have mostly been ciphers and adds information that helps makes sense of scenes and plot developments that had been frustratingly vague in past versions. We follow the misadventures of Georgy (Erwin Biswanger), the lowly worker who changes places with Freder and immediately finds himself swept up in the decadence of the upper world. We learn more about the love that both Fredersen and Rotwang shared for Hel as they visit a monument dedicated to her. (This material was allegedly deleted because the American censors feared that the name Hel would be too much for viewers of the time.) We follow Fredersen’s right-hand man (Fritz Rasp) as he tries to track down Freder and bring him back home where he belongs. There is more to the friendship that develops between Freder and his father’s former secretary, Josaphat (Theodor Loos) after his dad fires the man for some minor infraction. There is also additional material to be had in the climactic action as well--we now get to see the faux-Maria lead the workers in destroying the Heart Machine that basically runs all of Metropolis and there is more to Freder and Josaphat’s rescue of the children from the encroaching flood by climbing up an air shaft and breaking open a gate that will lead them to freedom. There are other little bits and pieces that don’t really add much to our knowledge of the story or the characters but which go a long way towards better establishing the size and scope of the city--thanks to these moments, we get a better sense of the everyday rhythms of the city and no longer feel as though it is basically a playground for only the main characters and the occasional faceless horde.

Over the years, even the most fervent fans of “Metropolis” have been forced to admit that it doesn’t really make a lot of sense from a narrative standpoint. For years, it was assumed that the lack of coherence was the result of all the editing that the film underwent over the years but as it has been slowly pieced back together (using a copy of the original screenplay as a blueprint), it has become more and more obvious that a good deal of that incoherence was presumably there right from the start--outside of the stuff involving the shared love for Hel (which offers a clearer motive for Rotwang’s actions), the newly restored material does little to clarify things. And yet, even though any attempt to find logic in the story would drive most people to distraction (even H.G. Wells himself deemed the story as “silly” when he wrote about it for the “New York Times” upon its original American release and the great surrealist Luis Bunuel described the story as “trivial, turgid, pedantic and imbued with a stale romanticism”), this is one of those rare movies where the narrative clunkiness doesn’t matter because Lang attacks the material in such a bold and headlong manner that we can always understand what is going on in the broad story strokes while setting the stuff that doesn’t quite add up to the side where it doesn’t get in the way. In fact, I am convinced that the fact that the pieces don’t quite fit together is one of the reasons why the film has managed to retain so much of its power and mystery over the decades--since it never adds up into one understandable whole, viewers can return to it time and again without ever getting the sense that they are watching the same thing over and over.

Of course, the real reason why people keep coming back to “Metropolis” again and again, whether they are filmmakers searching for inspiration and filmgoers wanting to revisit a classic, is the bold and still-stunning visual style that Lang utilized to tell his story. Even in a time when amazing advances in special effects technology seem to be achieved on a monthly basis, the sights created and captured here by Lang and an army of technicians that included cinematographer Karl Freud and effects creator Eugene Schufftan still have the capacity to dazzle and delight. Many of the moments on display here have long been since enshrined into legend, especially the first sustained shots of the workers toiling away in the vast underworld and the moment when Rotwang brings the robot Maria to life (a scene that would no doubt influence James Whale a few years later when he made “Frankenstein”), and therefore, it is all the more shocking to discover that in many cases, what we were seeing was actually the result of the usual elements of German Expressionistic filmmaking (highly stylized sets and camera angles, the dramatic use of shadows and theatrical gimmicks) mixed with sophisticated photographic trickery that allowed real people and miniature sets to be combined in the camera though the elaborate usage of mirrors. On the other hand, Lang was not afraid to go big and bold to get the effects he desired--the film also utilized massive sets and thousands of extras that were apparently herded around like cattle in order to get his vision across and for the scene in which the fake Maria is burned at the stake, the flames licking at Brigitte Helm’s feet were apparently quite real. The end result is one of the most sumptuous visual feasts in the history of filmmaking--there is hardly a moment that goes by that does not contain some element--be it an enormous skyscraper or a tiny little doodad in the background--that doesn’t catch the eye and stir the imagination.

As anyone who has visited their local multiplex in the last few months can attest, 2010 has not exactly been a fertile period for moviegoing--most of the films have been instantly forgettable junk on the level of very expensive television and even most of the better films, such as “Shutter Island,” “The Ghost Writer” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” have found their filmmakers illustrating the visions of others instead of bringing their own to life. While the return of a film like “Metropolis” would be a worthwhile endeavor under any circumstances, the fact that it has returned in the midst of the fallow period like this is even more valuable because it reminds us that there was a time when filmmakers tried to win over audiences by giving them sights that they had never experienced before instead of rehashes of old TV shows and revivals of old gimmicks like 3-D. Yes, “Metropolis” will be heading to DVD and Blu-ray later this year but if it is playing anywhere in the vicinity of where you live, you are advised to do whatever you can to see it on the big screen where it belongs. As strange as it sounds, the boldest, most exciting and most forward-thinking film that you are likely to see in 2010 is one that was made more than eighty years ago.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20598&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/03/10 18:30:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/24/10 sunny day Still can't believe Lang and the Germans beat us all at this FX imagery and visual style. 5 stars
6/21/10 Ken Kastenhuber THE expressionist masterpiece, a must see! 5 stars
6/07/10 David Hollingsworth Masterpiece on every single level! 5 stars
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  DVD: 16-Nov-2010



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